Football: The elegant solution for Keegan

Nick Townsend says the gifted Spur is at last in inspirational form
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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE perennially cynical White Hart Lane regulars, it has been an uncanny start to the Premiership season. Successive home victories and the spectacle of Darren Anderton untroubled by strain or bruise amount to as rare a phenomenon as a view of Pamela Anderson clad in a jellaba. Yet, more significant perhaps than the absence of "Please excuse me from games, Sir" missives from the England midfielder is the fact that he has rediscovered the kind of quality that he last exhibited when Terry Venables was the Tottenham manager.

Few revelations of the new season are likely to cheer Kevin Keegan more, when he reveals his squad on Thursday for the final Euro 2000 qualifying ties against Luxembourg and Poland, than the renaissance of the slightly built 27-year-old, taunted cruelly by his most savage terrace critics, who deride him as more lily-livered than Lilywhite.

Keegan could deploy Anderton in his unfavoured position on the left, or on the right with David Beckham utilised in the centre of midfield. Whatever his strategy, when that pair don their most elegant dancing shoes there are few nations who can boast such potentially scintillating service from the flanks. Against Luxembourg, whom England face at Wembley on Saturday week, in particular, Keegan will demand a constant supply of crosses if England are to amass the number of goals which could ultimately prove the crucial difference between them or Poland qualifying for a play-off place for Euro 2000.

With the Premiership's best left-sided players, Harry Kewell and Ryan Giggs, sadly being ineligible through birth, that position will continue to prove a dilemma for Keegan. Considering that Steve McManaman will lack match fitness - his season in the Spanish league began only yesterday - there is a strong argument for the inclusion of Leicester's Steve Guppy, whose deceptive centre which left Tony Cottee with a facile task to score against Arsenal on the first day of the season was typical of his prowess as a left-wing crosser.

In attack, Alan Shearer is seemingly assured his place until the captain himself decides he is not up to the task. So the intriguing question will concern who accompanies him as recipient of those centres. The sides against Luxembourg and away to Poland on the following Wednesday could well be markedly different, but it is difficult to imagine that Dion Dublin, who scored both Aston Villa's goals before the watching Keegan in the 2-2 draw with West Ham on Monday (the first a cracking example of control, turn and finish), will not feature prominently in Keegan's thoughts. Dublin also had the benefit of the England coach sitting alongside him on John Inverdale's sofa during the BBC's On Side. There's nothing like making your presence felt.

However, with Michael Owen missing, the Aston Villa striker will face stern competition from Emile Heskey, Robbie Fowler and Chris Sutton, with perhaps Teddy Sheringham brought in to feature in his usual support role.

Tottenham's Chris Perry, who has made a solid start under George Graham, could well be brought in to bolster the defence, and those hopeful of a midfield place in the squad could well include West Ham's Frank Lampard, the Under-21 captain, and Leeds' Lee Bowyer. The England coach has, thus far, been a firm believer in allowing youth to express itself.

In Ibsen's words, "Youth will come here and beat on my door, and force its way in." Leeds' Jonathon Woodgate has done just that, and Keegan can scarcely wait for the chance to blood West Ham's Joe Cole once he becomes a regular club performer. In the meantime, he is likely to give encouragement to the likes of Lampard, in influential form for West Ham this season, and Kieron Dyer, one of Newcastle's few successes. The Arsenal defender Matthew Upson, granted his Highbury chance because of Tony Adams' injury, could also get the call.

The inclusion of Woodgate, who had not even played his first Premiership game at the same stage last year, illustrates just how capricious the international game can be. In a negative sense, too. Of the 14 players who took part in the opening Euro 2000 qualifying game against Sweden, two - Rob Lee and Paul Merson - cannot even get into their club's first teams, while Paul Ince, whom Keegan has not yet restored to the set-up, has been rejected by Liverpool.

Reportedly, he has fared well with Middlesbrough, but to recall him now is hardly a forward-looking proposition. Neither would be the reinstating of Paul Gascoigne, unless the coach was seeking an inspired half-hour from the flawed Geordie genius against Poland.

Keegan's removal of the old guard will be gradual, with the silent bayonet to the individual rather than a blast of the cannon. Certainly, he is likely to place his dependency heavily on experience for both these games, the results of which will dictate the health or otherwise of England football for the next year.

These are not auspicious times for an England coach whose country are ranked 14th in the world and have won just three of their nine games since France 98. In his most vexed moments, how Keegan must yearn for the simplicity of occupying the England manager's seat in Walter Winterbottom's era. Just under 39 years ago Winterbottom's team defeated Luxembourg 9-0, but it was not merely the scoreline, and the talent, that would appeal to Keegan as the teams prepare to re-engage, but the continuity.

Springett, Armfield, McNeil, Robson R, Swan, Flowers, Douglas, Smith R, Charlton R, Greaves, Haynes. That was the England XI, and few were in doubt when the letters were despatched by the FA, because it was the same team that vanquished Northern Ireland 5-2 in the preceding match. It was also the side that beat Spain 4-2 in the following game and played in the next two, other than a goalkeeping change.

It is worth making the point, if only to illustrate the complexity of the coach's job today. Since the last World Cup, England have called on no fewer than 40 players. At least nobody can say they were denied a chance; the problem is that England are still no nearer to getting it right.


P W D L F A Pt

Sweden 5 4 1 0 6 1 13

Poland 6 4 0 2 12 6 12

England 6 2 3 1 8 4 9

Bulgaria 6 1 2 3 3 7 5

Luxembourg 5 0 0 5 2 13 0

Remaining fixtures: 4 Sep: Sweden v Bulgaria; England v Luxembourg. 8 Sep: Luxembourg v Sweden; Poland v England. 9 Oct: Sweden v Poland. 10 Oct: Bulgaria v Luxembourg.